Each year, on the fourth Sunday in July, thousands of runners from across America and around the globe return to Santa Cruz, California for the annual six-mile race to Capitola-by-the-Sea. First run in 1973 by a handful of locals, the Wharf to Wharf Race today enjoys a gourmet reputation in running circles worldwide. Its scenic, seaside setting, perfect weather, and festive beach party atmosphere make it a favorite of casual joggers and elite athletes alike. Limited to 16,000 runners, the race sells out each of its registration windows in a mere few hours. Runners are thrilled just to get in!
While many come for sun, fun and fitness reasons, serious athletes run to test their mettle against the best. The race draws an elite, international field. Runners know that a good showing at Wharf to Wharf is a guaranteed boost to their running career. The roll of past champions includes a number of former Olympians.
Widely acclaimed “The best little road race in California”, Wharf to Wharf is the biggest summer event of its kind on the West Coast and a boon to local business, annually infusing more than 8 million dollars into the Santa Cruz County economy. It receives broad media attention, and is highlighted in all running industry polls and publications as one of the top races in America each year.
The Race is produced and administered by Wharf to Wharf Race Inc., a California nonprofit corporation chartered to promote running as a means to health and fitness. In service of this mission, the Race has, since its inception, contributed more than $6 million dollars to Santa Cruz County youth sports programs in general and the running community in particular.
The first Wharf to Wharf Race was run Saturday morning July 28, 1973. It was not the main event of the day, just one of a number of festivities scheduled by the City of Capitola’s Heritage Days Committee organized by Jim Reding and Wayne Fontes to celebrate the dedication of Camp Capitola’s Superintendent’s Office, as a California State Historical Landmark. Wayne Fontes chaired the Race Committee and Soquel High School track coach, Ken Thomas, served as Race Director. The $200 race budget was underwritten by the City of Capitola.
The race was a pretty casual affair starting at the Santa Cruz Wharf and winding its way through coastal neighborhoods to Capitola Village, some six miles to the south. It did not run without incident. As the race leaders approached the Village, they were inadvertently misdirected out onto Capitola Wharf, rather than to the Capitola Esplanade where the finish line was actually located. After some discussion, race officials declared Stanford’s Jack Bellah the winner and duly awarded him a classic plaque proclaiming him Champion of the “WARF TO WARF” Race! These misadventures notwithstanding, the race was considered a grand success by the 273 participants that ran. When they clamored for a rerun the following year, the organizing committee obliged and the race began a life of its own. Through the seventies the race grew dramatically, riding the wave of the running boom that swept the nation. Its numbers doubled each year into the eighties before peaking at around 3,700 runners in 1983. It was at that point that its leadership elected to take a more proactive role in its promotion and administration. In the fall of that year race representatives were dispatched to the First Annual Roadrace Management Convention in Washington DC to see what they could learn about the business of running. The knowledge they brought back led to many changes in the face and future of the race, not the least of which was the introduction of a commercial sponsorship program, which facilitated the addition of attractive new features and expanded the financial horizons of the event. More than 6,000 runners answered the starter’s call in 1984. The race was rolling again!
And the growth continued through 1987, when a throng of 14,000 showed up, jamming village streets and race venues to the point that organizers feared for the future of the event, recognizing that it was in danger of smothering in the gridlock of its own popularity. In the years since, participation has been carefully capped to preserve the integrity of the race and insure the safety of its runners. This restriction has placed a premium on participation. The race field typically sells out months in advance, earning it a gourmet reputation among elite athletes and casual joggers around the world as the place to be on the fourth Sunday in July… if you can get in!
As the race matured over the years, so did its business profile. It was incorporated as a California nonprofit in 1980 to promote running as a means to health and fitness among the youth of Santa Cruz County. Planning for the race runs year-round. Its Board of Directors meets monthly to review policy, procedures and oversee the distribution of race proceeds to a wide array of programs and special projects. Race leadership and money spearheaded the development and maintenance of a world-class all-weather tracks at Soquel, Aptos, Watsonville, San Lorenzo Valley and Santa Cruz High Schools and mini-tracks at New Brighton Middle School, Valencia and Mission Hill Elementary Schools. Scholarships of $36,000 are annually awarded to top student athletes. Race funds and equipment support the Santa Cruz Track Club, International Games, Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League and a wide variety of local high school sports programs. Race donations to the local community in 2017, alone, totaled more than $260,000. Total donations over the years exceed six million dollars.
Speaking of money, an often overlooked but significant collateral benefit of the Race is its substantial financial impact on the local economy. It is well documented that the fourth weekend in July is the biggest of the year for Santa Cruz County’s hotel/restaurant trade. Data compiled by The Santa Cruz Conference and Visitors Bureau estimates that the 20,000 annual visitors generated by the event spend more than nine million dollars locally.
Today, the Wharf to Wharf Race is more than just a footrace. It has become a part of the local cultural fabric, touching the lives of thousands over its forty-seven-year history. Many have felt compelled to run it once as a rite of passage. Others run it year after year to celebrate their vitality or… just because it’s fun. Thousands are involved as volunteers, sponsors, and beneficiaries. It is truly a community event of, by and for runners. The fourth Sunday in July is a special date on the Santa Cruz calendar. All this from a $200 beginning back in 1973!
BOARD & STAFF
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Dave Murphy, President
President 2017-Present. Troubleshooter at Finish Line. Member of the Board 2013.
Brendan Kelly, Vice President
Vice President 2017-Present. Entertainment Coordinator. Advisor since 2011. Member of the Board 2016.
(Teacher/Coach, Aptos High School)
Wharf to Wharf Champion 1982. Technical Advisor since 1988. Member of the Board since 1993. Elite Athlete Liaison on Race Day.
(Retired Teacher/Track Coach Soquel High School)
Treasurer 2012-Present. Wharf to Wharf Champion 1974. Member of the Board since 1974. Race Director 1980-1983. Race Coordinator since 1984.
Advisor since 2009. Member of the Board 2012. Race Day Headquarters.
Robb Mayeda, Secretary
Transportation Coordinator. Advisor since 2012. Member of the Board 2016.
(CEO, Arete Running Club)
Advisor since 2015. Member of the Board 2019.
Nita Messersmith Lundin
Race Director Emeritus
(Realtor, City of Capitola Councilman/Mayor)
Finish Line Coordinator 1973. Member of the Board 1974-1983. Race Director 1984-1986 / 1988-2012.
Wharf to Wharf Scholarship winner 2001. Elite Athlete Coordinator 2009-2012. Assistant Race Director 2012. Race Director 2013 to present.